Unions have long been advocates for workers’ rights, aiming to improve working conditions, wages, and safety standards. Chris Smalls, the president of the first union at an Amazon warehouse in the U.S., believes that the labor movement and unions as a whole are making significant progress. Smalls finds encouragement in the fact that even 10-year-old students are aware of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, and are critical of him. This growing awareness among the younger generation bodes well for the future of workers’ rights.
Chris Smalls gained recognition as a leader in the effort to unionize Amazon’s warehouse workforce. However, he was fired after organizing a strike at the JFK8 facility in Staten Island, where he demanded better cleaning and safety precautions for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the setback, workers at JFK8 voted in 2022 to form the first union at an Amazon warehouse in the country through the independent organization known as the Amazon Labor Union. While this was a significant achievement, the union is still working towards securing its first contract with Amazon.
Seattle, home to Amazon’s largest corporate hub, is a city known for its tech industry and billionaire residents. Winning a unionization battle in such a prominent location would be a historic accomplishment, according to Smalls. However, there have been concerns expressed by workplace regulators in Washington regarding the conditions in Amazon’s warehouses. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has cited and fined Amazon multiple times for its failure to provide a safe workplace for its employees. Regulators argue that the company sets an unsafe pace of work, putting workers at risk of injury.
One particular warehouse in Washington, BFI3 in DuPont, has the highest injury rates among all Amazon fulfillment centers in the country. In 2019, it recorded 22 serious injuries for every 100 workers. Data from the Strategic Organizing Center reveals that Amazon’s warehouses across the country had an average of 7 injuries per 100 workers in 2022. However, Amazon disputes these claims and states that its own analysis shows a lower injury rate of 6.7 injuries per 200,000 working hours that year. Regardless, the company has appealed all four citations from Washington state regulators and has committed to investing $550 million in safety initiatives in 2023.
A trial is scheduled between Amazon and Washington state regulators to determine if the company has violated state law and whether changes to its operations are necessary. Chris Smalls, drawing from his personal experience, emphasized the importance of holding Amazon accountable for the injuries workers face. He expressed his desire to amplify the need for change and ensure the safety of workers.
While Chris Smalls has been a prominent figure in the unionization efforts, he has faced criticism from a dissident group within the Amazon Labor Union. This group filed a complaint in federal court, seeking a leadership election within the union. However, Smalls emphasized that Amazon itself is the real enemy, stressing the importance of unity among workers for success.
The Amazon Labor Union has been engaged in a legal battle with the company since its certification last year. Amazon has contested the results of the election, and workers have accused the company of interfering with campaigns and retaliating against involved employees. In January, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon had violated federal labor law in its efforts to resist unionization in New York.
Amazon continues to argue that unionization is not the most effective solution for addressing workers’ concerns. However, the company acknowledges employees’ right to choose. Chris Smalls highlighted the labor regulations in British Columbia, where workers have the opportunity to participate in a single-step certification process. He encouraged union members to hold leaders and politicians accountable and criticized union presidents who did not attend the convention or only spoke through recorded videos. Smalls emphasized the need for unions to adapt and expand into new spaces to bring about substantial change.
The efforts of Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union mark significant progress in the fight for workers’ rights. However, challenges remain, particularly regarding unsafe working conditions and resistance from the company itself. It is crucial for unions to continue pushing for accountability, unity among workers, and adaptation to ensure the realization of improved conditions and rights for all workers.